Serious words at funny Al Smith dinner

Political insiders know that the Alfred E. Smith Dinner strives to honor decades of civic and religious traditions. In election years, it's a tradition that the presidential candidates appear -- wearing formal, white-tie attire -- and satirize their own public images, while also aiming a few gentle shots at their opponent and the ranks of elite journalists in attendance.

Thus, Republican standard-bearer Mitt Romney, with a nod to his Mormon fuddy-duddy reputation, reminded the audience of wine-sipping socialites that, "Usually when I get invited to gatherings like this, it's just to be the designated driver."

Noting that this campaign has not, journalistically speaking, unfolded on a level playing field, he added: "I've already seen early reports from tonight's dinner, headline -- 'Obama Embraced by Catholics. Romney Dines with Rich People.' "

In response, the president poked fun at his own complex and, for some, controversial religious and family background by noting that, like Romney, he has a rather unusual name. "Actually, Mitt is his middle name. I wish I could use my middle name," said Barack Hussein Obama.

But, yes, there is the issue of the Romney family's wealth. "Earlier today, I went shopping at some stores in Midtown," quipped Obama. "I understand Governor Romney went shopping FOR some stores in Midtown."

It is a tradition, of course, that the jokes grab the headlines after this unique, YouTube-friendly scene at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue.

But it is also a tradition that this dinner has, throughout its 67-year history, been a crucial fundraiser for charities linked to the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, netting about $5 million this year. Thus, the Catholic shepherd of New York City speaks last and, literally, offers his benediction on this salute to lighthearted, generous public discourse in the tense battlefield that is national politics.

The stakes were especially high this year since Cardinal Timothy Dolan faced withering criticism from Catholic conservatives for extending the traditional invitation to the president -- because Obama has repeatedly clashed with the church over issues related to abortion, same-sex marriage and religious freedom.

The cardinal joined in the humorous repartee -- at one point noting that he couldn't read the greeting sent by Pope Benedict XVI because it was written in Latin -- but turned serious in his final prayer. He reminded the audience that the dinner honored Smith as the first Catholic selected as the presidential nominee of a major party, but also as the "happy warrior" who tirelessly fought to help the poor, the powerless and other forgotten Americans.

"Here we are, in an atmosphere of civility and humor … loving a country which considers religious liberty our first and most cherished freedom, convinced that faith is not just limited to an hour of Sabbath worship, but affects everything we do and dream," said Dolan, who also serves as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The purpose of the event, he added, was to "reverently" recall a "man of deep Catholic faith and ringing patriotism, who had a tear in his Irish eyes for what we would call, the 'uns' -- the un-employed, the un-insured, the un-wanted, the un-wed mother and her innocent, fragile un-born baby in her womb, the un-documented, the un-housed, the un-healthy, the un-fed, the under-educated.

"Government, Al Smith believed, should be on the side of these 'uns,' but a government partnering with family, church, parish, neighborhood, organizations and community, never intruding or opposing, since, when all is said and done, it's in God we trust, not, ultimately, in government or politics."

While Dolan is known for his boisterous wit, this final litany was clearly the big idea he wanted to communicate to both candidates and to all who were present, said Father James Martin, author of "Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life."

"It was very moving, and very Catholic, because he refused to narrow the Gospel down to one or two issues," said Martin, who attended the dinner. "He reminded everyone of the sacred dignity of all human life, not just in the womb, but also not just in the slums. …

"There are Catholics these days, on the left and on the right, who don't want to be reminded of both sides of that equation. What the cardinal did was honor our Catholic tradition -- all of it."

So a cardinal, Jesuit and comedian get to chat ...

In the year 752, a priest named Stephen was elected pope, but died four days later -- before officially filling the chair of St. Peter in Rome. For centuries Catholic records included him as Pope Stephen II -- until the Second Vatican Council. At that time, Pope Stephen III officially became Pope Stephen II (III) and the other later popes named Stephen received similarly strange titles.

So Pope Stephen III kind of vanished and that title became a kind of ecclesiastical inside joke, the kind that might appeal to cardinals and Jesuits. But what about a satirical superstar from Comedy Central?

Actually, this insider joke works if the comedian is named Stephen Colbert and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York delivers the punch line. The two faced off before 3,000 students and faculty at Fordham University in a Sept. 14 program focusing on "Humor, Joy and the Spiritual Life." The event was arranged by Father James Martin, author of the book "Between Heaven and Mirth" and for legions of fans the "Official Chaplain of the Colbert Nation."

The jocularity started early as Dolan -- who is used to having Catholics kiss his ring -- lunged to kiss Colbert's hand, first. Then, when Martin said the cardinal might become pope in a future conclave, Dolan responded, "If I am elected pope -- which is probably the greatest gag all evening -- I'll be Stephen III."

Colbert piled on: "Write that down! I want that notarized!"

Fordham officials disappointed YouTube fans by, at the last minute, declaring this much-anticipated summit a media-free zone. Still, a few journalists – starting with a New York Times scribe – slipped in as guests. Also, it's impossible to keep one-liners locked inside a hall packed with college students and Twitter-friendly smartphones.

Some of the exchanges shared via hashtag #Dolbert and #DolanColbert included:

* Colbert, who teaches Sunday school at his New Jersey parish, stressed that he never jokes about the sacraments. Instead, he skewers people he believes use and abuse faith, especially in politics. "Then I'm not talking about Christ. I'm talking about Christ as cudgel," he said.

* At one point, Cardinal Dolan introduced Evelyn Colbert, the comedian's wife, and kissed her cheek. "I can kiss your wife," he quipped. "You can't kiss mine."

* Jabbing the cardinal about recent changes in the Mass, Colbert noted one bumpy Nicene Creed edit: "Consubstantial! It's the creed! It's not the SAT prep."

* A student, via social media, asked: "I am considering the priesthood. Would it be prudent to avoid dating?" The cardinal said dating was a good idea, adding, "By the way, let me give you the phone numbers of my nieces." Colbert responded: "It's actually a great pickup line: 'I'm seriously considering the priesthood. You can change my mind.' "

* Concerning his own struggles as a believer, Colbert said: "Are there flaws in the church? Absolutely. But is there great beauty in the church? Absolutely.” And also, “The real reason I remain a Catholic is what the church gives me -- which is love."

* Dolan to Colbert: "Do you feel pressure to be funny all the time?" Colbert back to Dolan: "Do you feel pressure to be holy all the time?"

The bottom line, noted Martin, is that humor has always been part of religious life, including the lives of the saints. Take, for example, that famous prayer from the young St. Augustine: "Lord, give me chastity … but not yet."

In remarks later posted online, the Jesuit noted: "Humor serves serious purposes in the spiritual life. Joyful humor can evangelize, and draw people to God. Self-deprecating humor reminds us of our own humility. Provocative humor can also gently speak truth to power."

In his own theological reflections, the cardinal argued that the roots of Christian humor can be found in the darkest hours of Good Friday, when it appeared Jesus had been "bullied to death by undiluted evil; Love, jackbooted by hate; Mercy incarnate, smothered by revenge; Life itself, crushed by death."

But he who laughs last, stressed Dolan, laughs best.

"Lord knows there are plenty of Good Fridays in our lives. But they will not prevail. Easter will," he wrote, in his script. "As we Irish claim, 'Life is all about loving, living and laughing, not about hating, dying and moaning.' ... That's why we say, 'Joy is the infallible sign of God’s presence.' "

Maher says Obama's faith is fake

The last thing the White House needed was another TV preacher questioning the sincerity of President Barack Obama's Christian faith. But there was a twist. This time it was HBO's Bill Maher -- sermonizing against religion has become his life's work -- who claimed that Obama is hiding a deep, dark secret. During the Feb. 11 episode of his "Real Time" talk show, Maher said he knows an unbeliever when he sees one and that Obama is probably an agnostic.

This came a week after the president made another attempt, as church people say, to give "his testimony." Yes, his mother was a skeptic, Obama said, during the National Prayer Breakfast, but she was also "one of the most spiritual people that I ever knew." Her values led him to the Civil Rights Movement and to the Baptist, Catholic and Jewish clergy who led it.

"Their call to fix what was broken in our world, a call rooted in faith, is what led me ... to sign up as a community organizer for a group of churches on the Southside of Chicago," he said. "And it was through that experience working with pastors and laypeople trying to heal the wounds of hurting neighborhoods that I came to know Jesus Christ for myself and embrace Him as my lord and savior."

The presidency has, on occasion, driven him to his knees, he said. But faith has strengthened his family, especially "when Michelle and I hear our faith questioned from time to time."

Those old questions remain a concern months after a Pew Research Center poll found that 18 percent of Americans think Obama is a Muslim. At that time, only 34 percent of those polled said the president is a Christian and 43 percent said they didn't know his current religion. Among strong supporters, 43 percent of blacks and 46 percent of Democrats agreed that he is a Christian.

The bottom line: Millions of voters remain unsure whether Obama is their kind of believer.

Maher's attack was unique, since it came from an outspoken liberal, the acidic wit behind the movie "Religulous," an fierce secularist who is so turned off by faith that he calls himself an "apatheist" instead of an atheist. If Maher has a sanctuary, it's the Playboy mansion.

"With friends like Mr. Maher, Mr. Obama doesn't need enemies," noted Brent Decker, who leads The Washington Times editorial page.

Maher stated his doubts during a roundtable about whether the president is sincere in his attempts to march under a "centrist" banner. The iconoclastic comedian agreed with many religious conservatives on one crucial fact -- that Obama often appears to hide his true beliefs.

"If you woke him up in the middle of the night, or if you gave him sodium pentothal, I think he's a centrist the way he is a Christian -- not really," said Maher. In other words, Obama is pretending to be a centrist and a Christian.

The African-American philosopher and critic Cornel West disagreed: "He is a Christian, he's just a centrist Christian. He's not a prophetic Christian."

Maher stood firm: "His mother was a secular humanist and I think he is too."

This unleashed a lightning-fast series of exchanges, with guests discussing the fact that Obama entered the black church before he entered national politics. As an adult, he had already begun a spiritual journey that took him away from his mother's blend of skepticism and spirituality.

"He changed his mind on the God question, brother Bill," West reminded the host. "He changed his mind on the God question."

Again, Maher insisted that Obama is hiding his true beliefs in the same way that he keeps insisting that he continues to "struggle with gay marriage." It's smart politics for Obama to say one thing while believing the other, said Maher.

Nevertheless, insisted West, "Being a Christian is not a political orientation for the president. He is a Christian."

"I just don't believe him," Maher said.

"Bill, what do you think he is?", asked West. "You think he's agnostic, actually?"

"Yeah, kind of," said Maher.

West grew even more animated, asking, "On what grounds do you say that? ... What kind of evidence you got?"

Maher declined to answer and steered the discussion into safer territory.

Getting in the last word, West noted: "But somebody is wrong about this thing."

Super Bowl holy wars -- 2011

The ill-fated "Feed Your Flock" ad is, without a doubt, the most famous 30 seconds of video that no one will see during Super Bowl XLV. For the few who didn't catch it online, the ad features a worried pastor -- in a clerical collar -- who has empty pews and too many unpaid bills. Thus, he prays for inspiration and God responds with the sound of crunching chips and fizzing soda.

Soon hungry souls -- Jewish, Amish and Hare Krishna included -- are lining up in church for Doritos and Pepsi MAX in a way that suggests Holy Communion.

The brands are no surprise, since Media Wave Productions of Philadelphia produced "Feed Your Flock" for PepsiCo's annual "Crash the Super Bowl" contest, in which flocks of folks hope to win $1 million if their creation finishes No. 1 in USA Today's Ad Meter rankings. The chips-and-soda communion entry didn't qualify for a Super Bowl airing and has since vanished from YouTube and other sites after waves of protests by Catholics and others.

"It's hard to imagine such an ad being created only a few decades ago," noted Shane Rosenthal of the White Horse Inn weblog. "The trivialization of the sacred in this piece is nothing less than astounding. And that's just it. There isn't anything sacred anymore. Everything's a joke."

This offering, however, wasn't the only attempt at a Super Bowl ad built on religion or politics or both. Controversies of this kind have increased in recent years, with video activists on the cultural right and left doing their share of poking and protesting.

If professional football has become a form of religion, then it isn't surprising that America's Christmas Wars over faith in the public square are now followed by Super Bowl Culture Wars in the marketplace.

This year, "Feed Your Flock" wasn't even the only "Crash the Super Bowl" entry that used a dash of sacrilege. In "Party Crashers," another entry now on YouTube, God and Jesus make a scene at a party by eating all the Doritos. They are asked to leave and, with a snap, Jesus miraculously refills the empty snack bag. "Let's go, Dad," he says.

Several other ads rejected by the Fox Sports Media Group this year featured religious and political content that was too hot to be allowed into the Super Bowl ad wars with the heavyweights like Bud Light, and Snickers.

* In one, two curious football fans turn to the Bible after spotting "John 3:16" written in the black patches under a star player's eyes. The network said the Fixed Point Foundation video contained too much "religious doctrine."

* Self-proclaimed "conservative comedian" Richard Belfry also failed in an attempt to air a commercial for his "Jesus Hates Obama" online store that sells T-shirts and other items with his trademark slogan. Belfry said a circle of private investors agreed to purchase a 30-second Super Bowl slot -- which usually sell for about $3 million.

* Anti-abortion activist Randall Terry is attempting a novel approach, going so far as to register as a Democratic Party candidate for the White House so that he could insist that networks air his graphic video because of a campaign advertising loophole in existing FCC regulations. Few other opponents of abortion have taken his side.

This is not a new story. Before the 2009 Super Bowl, failed in an attempt to air "Imagine," an ad featuring a sonogram video of an unborn child matched with text offering thanks that the difficult family circumstances surrounding the young Barack Obama did not prevent his birth. Last year, Focus on the Family was successful with "Celebrate Family, Celebrate Life," an ad focused on missionary Pam Tebow and her decision to endure a risky pregnancy before giving birth to Tim, the future Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback.

These media conflicts are not connected with the tough Constitutional issues that drive the church-state conflicts that have become so common in recent decades, noted J. Brent Walker, head of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. Nevertheless, these faith-based controversies about Super Bowl advertisements -- whether silly, satirical or dead serious -- seem to be stirring similar public emotions.

"If we lived in a culture in which no one cared much about religion," he said, "then people wouldn't get so passionate about these things. But that wouldn't be America, would it?"

Congregating with Jon Stewart Leibowitz

In the beginning, there was the multimedia superstar Glenn Beck summoning his Tea Party congregation to a faith-friendly "Restoring Honor" rally on the National Mall. And behold, two postmodern prophets witnessed this media storm and decided that it was good. In response, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central organized their pre-election "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear."

Colbert, a progressive Catholic Sunday school teacher who pretends to be a right-wing blowhard, provided the fake "fear" factor. In his upside-down catechism, preaching "fear" became the same thing as advocating that nonpartisan virtue -- "hope."

The prophet of sanity was Jon Stewart. With his snarky call for rationality and civility, the Daily Show anchor implied that his critics were preaching insanity, irrationality and incivility. And, for once, he didn't season his satire with ironic shots at his own Jewish roots.

Truth is, Stewart has become a hero for many Jews and a controversial figure for others, noted Jane Eisner, editor of The Jewish Daily Forward. Nevertheless, Stewart -- originally Jon Stewart Leibowitz -- has once again been named to the "Forward 50," the newspaper's list of those who made a "significant impact on the Jewish story in the past year."

"This is very impressionistic," she said. "We try to identify people who are acting in ways that impact the Jewish community. ... We are looking for people who are acting in ways that really show the impact of their Jewish values, whether we're talking about Judaism as a faith or a culture."

However, many Jews have "real questions about how Jewishly Stewart acts." Nevertheless, said Eisner, "if we can translate this into Jewish terms, he keeps showing us that he knows his stuff, even as he makes fun of the fine details of Jewish life."

As his Forward 50 mini-biography notes: "A Democrat in the White House has hardly tempered the irreverent and distinctly Jewish voice of the liberal-leaning fake news anchor. ... Stewart is quick to play the Jewish card, drop a Zabar’s reference or cozy up to bubbes and zaydes at the 92nd Street Y."

That's one side of this identity question. However, the Hollywood Jew weblog noted: "For some Jews it's perplexing that Jon Stewart, an American Jewish icon, isn't religious. How could the Jew who makes Jewish 'cool' be so indifferent to Judaism? ... Buried beneath the laughter from his jokes ... is a deep and hidden disappointment that he isn't really doing what we're doing." This is, after all, a man who flaunts his bacon-cheeseburgers on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

Nevertheless, with his edgy sermons about skepticism and reason, Stewart dwells comfortably with other Jewish progressives who see themselves as heirs of the Enlightenment -- standing against blind faith and ancient traditions. The assumption for many on the Jewish left, said Eisner, is that there is always "something worrisome about people who take their faith really seriously."

These religious tensions were visible on the National Mall during the Stewart-Colbert rally. While organizers insisted their event was non-partisan, and pled with participants to temper their words and deeds, the crowd included flocks of people who clearly were there to mock the views of religious and secular conservatives.

Consider, for example, the inevitable Hitler signs.

When announcing his rally, Stewart said he planned to distribute signs that were both civil and witty. One sign, for example, would say: "I Disagree With You, But I'm Pretty Sure You're Not Hitler."

Many got the message, but some didn't. Someone produced signs containing images of prominent conservatives -- with Hitler mustaches -- and the headline, "Afraid yet?" Beck, Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh made the sign, along with Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, almost certainly the next Speaker of the House, and Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the likely House majority leader.

Cantor is Jewish and, like Stewart, made the Forward 50 list for 2010.

Stewart remained silent. Still, as his rally ended, the funny man soberly admitted that he could not control "what people think this was."

"I can only tell you my intentions," he said. "This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith, or people of activism, or to look down our noses at the heartland, or passionate argument, or to suggest that times are not difficult, and that we have nothing to fear. They are, and we do.

"But we live now in hard times -- not the end times."

Politics, Baylor, The NoZe & Aqua Buddha

If Texas Baptists had a patron saint, the Rev. George W. Truett would almost certainly get the nod. So it was a solemn occasion when the great preacher from Dallas arrived in "Jerusalem on the Brazos" in 1941 to preach a series of revival services at Baylor University, the planet's largest Baptist institution of higher learning. Then loud alarm clocks started ringing in the attic of cavernous Waco Hall, on three-minute intervals.

This pandemonium was, of course, orchestrated by Baylor's Nose Brotherhood. This club for satirists was born in 1926 and quickly became known for its "Pink Tea" spectaculars, which offered "vertical exercising" on a campus that, from 1845-1996, banned dancing. The secret society was "just a fun-loving bunch of boys," Brother Dude Nose Harrison told the Dallas Morning News in 1931.

The Nose became the NoZe in 1965 when, in an event that has achieved mythic status, a campus bridge that once a year was ceremonially painted pink mysteriously went up in flames. The brothers were temporarily banished, but began appearing in their signature glasses, fake noses and tacky wigs.

The question now facing America is whether the activities of the NoZe Brotherhood could cost the Republican Party control of the U.S. Senate.

Alas, this is not satire.

Kentucky Democrat Jack Conway has asked why Republican Rand Paul, in the ominous words of a television advertisement, was a "member of a secret society that called the Holy Bible a 'hoax,' that was banned for mocking Christianity and Christ? Why did Rand Paul once tie a woman up, tell her to bow down before a false idol and say his god was 'Aqua Buddha'?"

Being accused of "anti-Christian" activities is not a good thing in the Bible Belt. As the Washington Post put it, Paul stands accused of participating in a "secret society while at Baylor University that published mocking statements regarding the Bible."

The Conway campaign added: "This is an ad about things he did. He has failed to deny any of these charges."

At this point, I should stress that while I am a Baylor graduate from the same era as Paul, I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of the NoZe Brotherhood. I did know some NoZe folks, including one who became a White House speechwriter, and like all Baylor alumni I know that no non-NoZe knows the no-nonsense non-NoZe news that the NoZe knows.

The Republican has acknowledged participating in NoZe pranks. Meanwhile, one of his Baylor colleagues told the Louisville Courier-Journal: "We aspired to blasphemy and he flourished in it."

Sounds like the NoZe to me.

During my years at Baylor, the secret society mocked all kinds of people, including Dan Rather, Richard Nixon, Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski (a powerful Baylor alum) and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post. I was present when Woodward was made an honorary member -- Brother Water NoZe, or some variation on that theme. As I recall, the NoZe crashed his campus lecture, presenting him with his own plunger, while seated on a rolling commode.

The NoZe mocked all things Baptist, targeting the many sacred cows that resided on campus. These NoZe drippings rarely achieved brilliance and often veered into college-life stupidity.

Nevertheless, the Baylor Library maintains a modest NoZe archive. While the brotherhood has been exiled from campus several times, its official historian -- the late Brother Short Nose (William B.) Long -- served on the Baylor board of regents and received his alma mater's highest honor, The Founders Medal.

Drawing on this respected physician's book, "The Nose Brotherhood Knows: A Collection of Nothings and Non-Happenings, 1926-1965," Baylor Magazine published a 2003 report that probed the philosophy behind the brotherhood's attempts to "put the 'pie' in piety" and "the 'pun' in punctilious."

The bottom line: It is, as a rule, quite dangerous to mix satire and religion.

One of the NoZe -- it may have been Brother Bilbo BaggiNoze or Brother IgNoZetius Reilly -- told the magazine: "I have no problems whatsoever with Christianity, but I think blind Christianity is a mistake. People are sometimes afraid to examine other religions, but it just makes your beliefs stronger in the end. I don't think a Christian mission means that we can't look at and study everything in the world. Furthermore, if education is really the goal of each student here ... certainly they'd want to be exposed to as many opinions and as many things as possible."

Pastor Will B. Dunn -- RIP

Cartoonist Doug Marlette got used to hearing people mix comments about his humor with references to Almighty God.

After all, one of the main characters in his syndicated comic strip "Kudzu" was the Rev. Will B. Dunn, a deep-fried Southern preacher who always remained optimistic, even as he battled with the insanity of modern life (especially trendy Bible translations).

Meanwhile, Marlette's political cartoons often inspired readers to barrage editors with the kind of God talk that cannot be printed in family newspapers.

There was, for example, his caricature of Pope John Paul II wearing a "No Women Priests" button. The caption said, "Upon this Rock I will build my church'' and Marlette drew an arrow pointing at the pope's head. Another infamous cartoon showed an Arab terrorist driving a truck containing a nuclear bomb. The caption: "What Would Mohammed Drive?"

A cartoon on my office wall -- a gift from Marlette as I left the Charlotte Observer -- shows PTL televangelist Jim Bakker kneeling before a dollar sign that towers over a stone altar framed with candles. Bakker proclaims, with his boyish grin, "Gimme that old time religion!"

The cartoonist knew he was playing with holy fire. You can't draw Jesus climbing Calvary on Good Friday -- carrying an electric chair -- and not expect people to react.

Marlette insisted that his goal was to remind his fellow believers to practice what they preach.

"As I look back through my work, I'm always amazed by how much of what I do just comes out of having gone to Sunday school," he said, taking a break in his cluttered Observer office in the mid-1980s. "The perspective, the viewpoint, comes out of that. They don't teach subversive ideas in the Magnolia Street Baptist Church in Laurel, Mississippi."

Marlette, 57, was back in Mississippi recently when he died in a single-vehicle crash on a rain-swept highway while on the way to help a high school perform his musical, "Kudzu." A true gadfly, he rattled cages for more than three decades and died with more than his share of faithful friends and fierce critics.

A native of North Carolina, the cartoonist and writer burst into print after studying at Florida State University, where he tried to study art but ended up majoring in philosophy. He took classes in New Testament and ethics but also, as he loved to note, classes in sports officiating. Marlette won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for his work at the Observer and the Atlanta Constitution. He wrote two novels and, in 2001, became a distinguished visiting professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Marlette had a better grasp of the power of religion than most journalists, noted former Observer editor Rich Oppel, who led the newsroom during the PTL era. The cartoonist was a provocateur and, at his best, a prophet.

"After 10 years of our reporting, televangelist Bakker resigned from PTL and was later convicted of fraud and sentenced to federal prison," noted Oppel, in his editor's column at the Austin American-Statesman. "Bakker's handpicked successor was Jerry Falwell, who came in to see me and 'make peace.'

"From a corner, Marlette cast a gimlet eye on Falwell as the minister did his best Sunday school number on me. Marlette then retreated to his lair to pen a cartoon of the preacher as a serpent in the Garden of Eden. Falwell refused to talk to me again."

When it came to religion, Marlette thought of himself as a Baptist's Baptist, a fierce believer in the "priesthood of the believer," the authority of human experience and the separation of church and state.

There are, he told me, people who become cynical about religion and he was determined not to yield to that temptation -- very often. But there were many times when he preferred laughing, instead of crying.

While he took the Christian faith seriously, he also thought it was futile to obsess over details. There were times when he felt like a church of one.

"It's my own church, my own perspective. It certainly doesn't deserve to be institutionalized or taken more seriously than other people's," said Marlette. "It's not infallible. It's skewed. It's mine. ... It's kind of like dissecting a frog. Once you get the thing cut up and taken apart, it's not really a frog anymore. Something dies in the process."

Nervous believers in Year 18

Religious folks sure get nervous when public officials talk about "fundamentalist" gunmen invading a school.

Consider what happened recently after a staged emergency at Burlington Township High School in New Jersey. The police script for the drill called for armed men to crash the front doors, shoot several students and barricade themselves in the library with hostages. This document, according to the Burlington County Times, described the intruders as part of "a right-wing fundamentalist group called the 'New Crusaders' who do not believe in the separation of church and state." The two gunmen attacked because a child had been expelled for praying.

For some reason, evangelical pastors became alarmed. Thus, local officials and educators released a statement saying they regretted "any insensitivity that might have been inferred" by this scenario, including any offense taken by those who "inferred" that the mock terrorists were Christians.

I have no idea why pastors "inferred" that organizers of this tax-funded drill had in any way suggested that "right-wing" fundamentalists in a "New Crusaders" army opposed to the "separation of church and state" and angry about a "school prayer" dispute might be conservative Christians.

No way. Why would anyone "infer" something like that?

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Boredom is rarely a problem for journalists on the religion beat. That's why I mark this column's anniversary every year -- this is No. 18 -- by offering a grab-bag collection of strange stories that I didn't have the chutzpah or the time to cover during the previous 12 months. So hang on.

* During holiday seasons, I get all kinds of email and often it's hard to tell when people are joking. For example, I received an copy of "The Two-Minute Haggadah: A Passover service for the impatient." It condensed the rite's pivotal four questions to this:

(1) "What's up with the matzoh?" (2) "What's the deal with horseradish?" (3) "What's with the dipping of the herbs?" (4) "What's this whole slouching at the table business?" The answers? "(1) "When we left Egypt, we were in a hurry. There was no time for making decent bread." (2) "Life was bitter, like horseradish." (3) "It's called symbolism." (4) "Free people get to slouch."

* No joke. The KFC restaurant chain did ask Pope Benedict XVI to bless its new "Fish Snacker" product, which the company said would be "ideal for American Catholics who want to observe Lenten season traditions while still leading their busy, modern lifestyles." Apparently, the pope declined.

* Try to imagine the media response if President George W. Bush ended a United Nations address with a call for the second coming of his Messiah and pledged to help this apocalypse happen sooner rather than later.

Would this make headlines? Thus, I was surprised when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad drew little fire when he ended his fall U.N. speech by saying:

"I emphatically declare that today's world ... above all longs for the perfect righteous human being and the real savior who has been promised to all peoples and who will establish justice, peace and brotherhood on the planet. O, Almighty God, all men and women are your creatures and you have ordained their guidance and salvation. Bestow upon humanity that thirsts for justice, the perfect human being promised to all by you, and make us among his followers and among those who strive for his return."

* Candid religion quote of the year? Asked by Vanity Fair if she is a Christian, columnist Ann Coulter replied: "Yes, sort of a mean Christian."

* Church PR efforts are getting edgier. An Episcopal parish in New Jersey issued a "Message to Disaffected Roman Catholics" proclaiming that many "whose spiritual lives are grounded in the Mass and in the sacraments are, nevertheless, unable to concur with the Vatican's position on issues such as the role of women in the church, contraception, remarriage of divorced person, homosexual relationships, or abortion. ... If you are among them, you may find a comfortable spiritual home at Grace Church in Newark."

* In a list of 100 men and women who are "transforming our world," Time editors included 27 "artists and entertainers," 16 "scientists and thinkers" and many other powerful people. However, the list included only three religious leaders. This is the planet earth we are talking about, right?

Church signs along the road

Donald Seitz had suffered through a long day during a bad week at his office on Nashville's famous Music Row.

On his way home from a business call, he drove past the Greater Pleasant View Baptist Church in Brentwood, Tenn. As usual, the no-tech sign out front offered a folksy thought for the week. This one caught his eye.

"He who kneels before God can stand before anyone," it said, in black, movable letters inserted by hand into slots on a plain white background.

Seitz pulled over and got out of his car to study the sign.

"It's all about timing," he said. "I've driven past thousands of church signs in my life, but this was the right sign on the right day. It got me. That's the thing about these signs. They grab you when you least expect it. They move you, somehow."

Before long, the president of Redbird Music crossed the line between intrigued and somewhat obsessed.

Along with his wife and their young son, he packed their car full of camera equipment and "lots of sippy cups" and hit the road. His goal was to find as many of these old-fashioned signs as possible -- the kind that say things like "Coincidence is when God chooses to remain anonymous," "Exercise daily, walk with the Lord," "God answers knee mail" and "Give God what is right, not what is left."

They spread their trips over three years and Seitz stopped keeping track of the miles after they passed the 20,000 mark. The result was "The Great American Book of Church Signs," which contains 100 photographs taken in nearly 40 states. The pilgrimage, he said, was like reading "one long American sermon."

Seitz did have questions. He wondered if these signs are still common at rural churches, but rarely used by city megachurches. Also, do some denominations embrace them, while others they are too simplistic? Would he find a red-church vs. blue-church pattern?

Many of his preconceptions were based on his experiences living and driving in the Bible Belt, especially two-lane roads in the Southeast.

"This book could have been done in Tennessee, alone. In fact, I think I could have done a whole book in Nashville," said Seitz, laughing. "In this part of the world, you can throw a rock in just about any direction and hit four or five churches that have these signs. ...

"Church signs are more common in some places than others, but if you keep looking you'll find them at all kinds of churches all over the country."

Thus, the Harmony Hill Church of God in Fayetteville, Tenn., proclaimed, "Faith is a journey, not a destination." But Seitz also found a sign that said, "Love God with all of your heart, then do whatever you want" in front of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, New York.

The Tompkinsville (Ken.) Church of Christ's sign warned rural drivers that, "A dam holds water back. It's not my last name. God." On the other side of the doctrinal aisle, the sign at the South Church Unitarian Universalist sanctuary in Portsmouth, N.H., announced -- with typically broad-minded sentiments -- that, "True religion is the life we lead, not the creed we profess."

Seitz said he was surprised that he saw very few signs that included political themes, although it was easy to read between the lines of one that said, "The Ten Commandments are still posted here." It was

also easy to interpret another marquee that stressed, "God is not a Republican or a Democrat."

This is not advanced theology. The message on a typical sign is only eight words long and is the product of a volunteer's clever imagination, research in old church bulletins or, in the digital age, a quick search on the World Wide Web. Most combine a chuckle with a moral message that strives to appeal to strangers as well as members.

After all of his travels, Seitz decided that the archetypal church-sign message was this one: "Life is fragile. Handle with prayer."

"It's succinct, it has that little pun in there and it's powerful, if you think about it for a minute," he said. "That's the essence of a good church sign message. That's what you're trying to do -- get people to stop and think for a minute."